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Changes in Pitjantjatjara mourning and burial practices.

Abstract: This paper is based on observations over a period of more than five decades of changes in Pitjantjatjara burial practices from traditional practices to the introduction of Christian services and cemeteries. Missions have been criticised for enforcing such changes. However, in this instance, the changes were implemented by the Aboriginal people themselves. Following brief outlines of Pitjantjatjara traditional life, including burial practices, and of the establishment of Ernabella Mission in 1937 and its policy of respect for Pitjantjatjara cultural practices and language, the history of these changes which commenced in 1973 are recorded. Previously, deceased bodies were interred according to traditional rites. However, as these practices were increasingly at odds with some of the features of contemporary social, economic and political life, two men who had lost close family members initiated church funeral services and established a cemetery. These practices soon spread to most Pitjantjatjara communities in a manner which illustrates the model of change outlined by Everett Rogers (1962) in Diffusion of Innovations. Reference is made to four more recent funerals to show how these events have been elaborated and have become major social occasions.

Readers are advised that the names and images of deceased Anangu people are included in this article.


In March 2010 local Anangu people and visitors celebrated the re-opening of the church building at Ernabella in the far north-west of South Australia. Ernabella was a Presbyterian mission from 1937 to 1973. From 1 January 1974 administration was transferred to Pukatja Community Council. The roof and part of one wall of the church building, erected and dedicated in 1952, contained asbestos. It was therefore closed in 2006. Funding from Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park gate proceeds and church and government funding bodies enabled replacement of the asbestos materials. The re-opening service, held on 27 March 2010, was featured in the ABC1 television Compass program, 'Ernabella: No ordinary mission', on Good Friday, 22 April 2011.

Featured in the restored building, on the rear interior wall, were three large panels displaying the history of Ernabella through photographs and documents. These attracted interest as local people looked at images of their parents and grandparents working as shepherds, shearers, craftpersons, gardeners and builders, including people making and laying bricks for the church. A display of images of deceased people would have been impossible in earlier years because of traditional attitudes to death and spiritual existence. This paper examines these traditional beliefs and practices and outlines the changes that have led to the acceptance of viewing such images.

Christian missions have been criticised for imposing such changes on the societies they evangelise. A feature of the changes examined in this paper is that they were introduced not by missionaries but by members of the society as they grappled with the incongruity of traditional practices in the contemporary situation.

This paper has been long in gestation. Information relating to it has been stored for decades in a file 'Papers to be written' in my filing cabinet. When I first considered writing about these changes, there was a focus in sociological studies on topics such as social change and community development. One of the references I came across then was Everett Rogers (1962), Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers identified four crucial elements in the analysis of the diffusion of innovations: '(1) the innovation, (2) its communication from one individual to another (3) in a social system, and (4) over time' (Rogers 1962:12). This model has been a useful guide as I have reflected on my observation of this change over several decades. In a chapter on Pitjantjatjara Christianity published in 2005 1 referred briefly to this topic (Edwards 2005:147-9). This paper provides much more detail and comment on this significant change in Pitjantjatjara cultural practices.

The Anangu people

Ernabella Mission was sited on traditional lands of Yankunytjatjara-speaking people. By the 1920s and 1930s some of their western neighbours, the Pitjantjatjara, moved into this region because of droughts and the increasing attraction of foods and other commodities introduced by European settlement, which motivated some Yankunytiatjara to move further east. Pitjantjatjara people became the major residential group at Ernabella (Hilliard 1968:82). The term Anangu, meaning person or body, is now commonly used to identify members of these two, and other dialect, groups of the Western Desert language family. The Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people occupied an extensive area of land in the far north-west of South Australia and adjacent portions of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Ernabella was sited in the Musgrave Range, the easternmost of three ranges, the others being the Mann Range and the Tomkinson Range, which stretched for approximately 400 kilometres along what is now the South Australian--Northern Territory border. To the north and south lay extensive areas of spinifex-covered sand hill plains with occasional rocky outcrops.

The Anangu followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Small local groups camped near scattered water supplies which depended on unpredictable rains, with annual rainfall ranging generally from 50 to 400 millimetres, increasing on rare occasions to 750 millimetres, and averaging approximately 200 millimetres (Brokensha 1975:7). Water was obtained from rock pools in watercourses in the ranges, pools at the base of hills, soakages in creek beds and from the roots of some trees. There were no permanent dwellings but protection from the elements was provided by shelters made from boughs, shrubs and spinifex grass. These are referred to as yuu (windbreak) or wiltja (shade). The animal food resources, including kangaroo, emu, bush turkey, lizard, goanna and witchetty grub, and plants foods, including native millet, mulga seeds, bush tomato, quandong and native fig, were hunted and gathered (Edwards 1998:40). As the water and food supplies at one campsite diminished, the group moved to another site.

The Anangu attributed the beginning of human and other life" forms and the shaping of the environment to the activities of spirit-beings, kurunpa tjuta, during the creative period known as Tjukurpa, usually glossed as The Dreaming. Kurunpa is translated as spirit, will or self. Before the Dreaming there existed a formless substance, under the surface of which the various spirit-beings lay dormant. Tjukurpa refers to the occasion when these beings became animated and emerged on the surface of the earth, sharing the identities of both humans and the animal and plant species of the localities, for example kangaroo-man, emu-man, perentie-man, bowerbird-women, lizard-woman and native fig-man. As these beings moved across the surface of the land, they formed the features of the environment as they metamorphosed into hills or trees, made camps and implements, dug waterholes and left their footprints on the ground. Thus mountains, creeks, rock holes, caves, sand hills and heavenly bodies such as Orion and Pleiades were formed.

The spirit-beings gave birth to all the animal and plant species, including humans. Kurunpa or spirit continues to exist in the earth and its physical features, as well as in all the animate species which inhabit it. Humans must tread warily on the land lest by disturbing and harming these beings they suffer dire consequences. There is a close relationship between all elements of the universe. As the spirit-beings moved across the land they performed the daily activities of the human and animal or plant species to which they gave their origin. They hunted and gathered, made tools, prepared foods, conceived children and performed ceremonies. In this way, they provided the pattern of life to be followed by that species. WEH Stanner (1979:24) summed this up as follows: 'Clearly, The Dreaming is many things in one. Among them, a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man.'

As a consequence of this worldview, Aboriginal societies tended to be conservative. In contrast to modern Western societies, which are largely future oriented and in which change (with the idea of building better societies) is commended, in Anangu society the Tjukurpa provided the model of the ideal community and change was viewed with suspicion. This does not mean that Aboriginal societies remained static. Environmental changes forced adaptations to economic and social structures. These changes were gradual and accompanied by alterations to mythology and ritual to accommodate the perceived changes in the landscape and associated species. Dreams were one way of validating innovations. In Pitjantjatjara the word used for dreaming as a mind activity during sleep is tjukurmananyi, which obviously is derived from the same root as the term for The Dreaming. Dreams enable entry into the world of The Dreaming. Thus new stories and songs are said to be revealed to a person as he or she dreams. In the same way, a person suggesting an innovation may claim that this was received in a dream.

Most daily interaction in Anangu societies was with other members of the local group associated with a cluster of sites related to the major totemic spirit-being of their area. Members of a group saw themselves and the animal or plant species associated with the particular spirit-being as being descended from the original Tjukurpa identities. For example, people in the Mount Davies region in the north-west corner of South Australia perceived themselves and the red kangaroos as descended from the original wati-malu, the kangaroo-man. Further east was a site, Kunarnata, associated with wati ili, the native fig-man, the progenitor of the local people and the native figs. The Tjukurpa spirit-beings travelled well beyond their specific areas and their interaction with other spirit-beings provided the pattern for relationship with other local groups. In relation to these groups, marriage was usually exogamous, with a man marrying a woman from another group, according to specific relationship criteria. Members of these groups were responsible for maintaining and passing on the stories and songs which recorded the exploits of the Dreaming characters and for performing the dances and other rituals which exhibited and portrayed these exploits.

In a society which did not engage in agricultural or pastoral activities but depended on the supply of foodstuffs and other essential goods obtained through hunting and gathering techniques, the provision of these goods was seen as dependent on the performance of rituals related to the various species or objects. For example, the performance of kangaroo rituals was viewed as essential to ensure the survival of this species. Each local group was responsible for seeing that the appropriate rituals were performed. If a certain species became scarce it was assumed that the relevant group had not fulfilled their obligations satisfactorily. These ceremonies have been categorised as increase rituals. Thus they are distinguished from another class of rituals, those related to major events in the life of an individual such as birth or entering into adulthood, marriage and death. In Anangu society the major rituals in this category were those involved with the initiation of youths into manhood and those related to death and mourning.

Anangu beliefs and practices relating to death

Pitjantjatjara language distinguishes between a live body, puntu, and a dead body or corpse, miri. The other major constituent of a human being is spirit, kurunpa. As outlined above, the whole universe, including the land and all biological and botanical species, is imbued with spiritual essence. Conception is viewed as due to the activity of a spirit-being in the womb, which leads to the birth of a baby. The person is thus linked to the spirit-beings of that site (Berndt RM and CH 1981:138). During the person's life, illness or depression may be attributed to the absence of the spirit from the body (Edwards 2001b:16). Robert Tonkinson (1970:287) recorded the dream-spirit beliefs of the Mardu people in Western Australia who accept that the 'spirit must be free to wander in the spirit world as the person sleeps'. People absent from their homelands were thus able to communicate with those sites and their totemic beings. Death results from the final departure of the kurunpa from the puntu. Pitjantjatjara people believe also in the existence of harmful spirit-beings referred to as mamu. They are believed to be the cause of some sicknesses and other misfortunes.

Certain individuals known as ngangkari are attributed the knowledge and power to deal with the spirit-world, to identify the cause of an illness or misfortune, and to expel the harmful spirit and remove a mamu from inside a person (Goddard 1992:82). While the death of a young child or older person may be accepted as normal, the death of a person in the prime of life was regarded as due to some malign influence, human or spirit, and the ngangkari was called upon to discern the cause so that retributive action could be undertaken. Due to the lack of means to preserve bodies, they were interred soon after death. The procedures and ceremonies no doubt varied according to the number of people in the vicinity when death occurred. For example, if a man died when travelling with his family away from a larger group, they would be unable to carry out the full ceremonies or dig a large grave. When visiting a site in Western Australia in 1980, I was told that a woman had covered the body of her deceased partner with rocks at the edge of a sinkhole as she was unable to dig a grave.

In 1903, near the future site of Ernabella, an early intruder into Anangu land, Herbert Basedow, observed the fear shown by three Aboriginal companions when they came across a fresh grave. Members of this geological expedition examined the grave of a female: 'Indicating the spot of interment is a more or less circular mound of earth, at the northern end of which a hole has been left, through which the corpse communicates directly with the atmosphere. The opening is partly closed at the surface with a few dead sticks of mulga' (Basedow 1915:84). Basedow thus identified some of the common features of Anangu graves. Ronald Berndt carried out fieldwork in the Ooldea region to the south of the Anangu lands in 1939. Berndt and Harvey Johnston (1942:203) gave the following account based on reports of several burials:

   The deceased's hair is removed at death, and
   he is doubled up and, in the case of a man,
   tied with the spear-throwing arm bound
   to his side. His camp and belongings are
   destroyed. The body, carried to a chosen
   site, is placed in a shallow grave on a bed
   of leaves, with the head to the east. In the
   case of the Antakirinja people at Ooldea the
   grave has a round opening of about three feet
   in diameter and six feet deep ... A peculiar
   feature in the Antakirinja mode of burial is
   the widened, scooped out, cavity in which the
   corpse is placed at the bottom of the grave.
   The grave is not filled in with sand or earth,
   but is covered instead with leaves and bushes,
   logs being placed on top.

As in all aspects of Anangu life, people undertook tasks in preparing the body and the grave according to relationship to the deceased, with in-laws, such as brothers-in-law, having major roles, under the direction of immediate family members. Wooden bowls and digging-sticks, employed in hunting burrowing animals, were used to excavate the grave. The earth from the hole was piled near the grave. The lack of earth above the body enabled the kurunpa or spirit to escape and move around the surface of the earth. Sometimes a spear or digging stick was placed in the hole to facilitate this escape. Differing accounts are given as to where the spirit goes. Some suggest that the ngangkari gives the spirit to a widow to keep in her shelter. Elkin (1937:297) was informed that it lives in the bushes near the grave until the people return for the final ceremony, sometimes referred to as the second burial. After a period of a few weeks or months, depending on the movement of the people and availability of water and food in the area, they returned to the burial site to cover the grave with soil. Once again the fate of the kurunpa is variously referred to as being placed in the grave, caught by the ngangkari and put into a close relative, or left to live in the trees or a cave (Elkin 1937:298). Elkin referred to the wailing that continued until the second burial concluded the mourning period.

Modern psychoanalytical theories relating to bereavement suggest that grief involves a process of three or more phases. Bachelor (2004:25) suggests that notions such as the following are present in these phases: (1) shock, disbelief, numbness and denial; (2) acute mourning, despair and anger; and (3) resolution, acceptance and renewal. This model is appropriate to the analysis of Anangu mourning practices. Phase 1 covers the immediate reaction to the death and the burial, phase 2 describes the subsequent period of mourning, and phase 3 relates to the second burial and ending of the period of mourning. During the ceremonies and mourning period, close relatives adorned themselves with white or yellow ochres as a sign of their grief. The burial area was avoided lest the roaming kurunpa of the deceased disturbed and harmed the living. Footprints of the deceased were closely identified with the person and would be obliterated or avoided. When a young woman died at Ernabella in the early 1960s, people entering the community dining hall avoided the main door for some time after her death because she had passed through it many times and her prints were on the ground outside the door.

A name is also viewed as part of the person. For example, in Pitjantjatjara one does not ask 'Nyaa nyuntumpa ini?' ('What is your name?') but 'Nyuntu ini ngananya?' ('Who you name?') Thus, the uttering of the name of a recently dead person is avoided because it may offend the kurunpa. Other persons having the same name are referred to as, for example, 'Tommy's elder brother' or 'Mary's younger sister' or by the term Kunmanara, which means one whose name I cannot say. After a lengthy period the person is given a new name.

While these taboos on names and places reflect a fear of contact through speech or physical contact that may motivate the kurunpa of the deceased to cause harm, they also serve as reminders of that person. Terms that are substituted for the proper names of relatives of the deceased also evoke these memories. For example, a person who has lost one or both parents may be referred to as mintji (Yankunytjatjara) or wangu (Pitjantjatjara), and a male whose brother or sister has died may be referred to as tjitjururu, and a female in the same situation referred to as pinku. The use of the terms wanakala to refer to a widow and tjitula to refer to one who has lost one or both parents also serves as such reminders.

The establishment of Ernabella Mission

Exploratory parties under William Gosse and Ernest Giles in 1873 were the first Europeans to enter the Anangu lands. They were followed by sundry adventurers, prospectors and surveyors. In the 1920s and 1930s there was intrusion by traders obtaining dingo scalps from Anangu in return for goods such as flour, tea and sugar. These 'doggers' then obtained the government bounty on the scalps (Hilliard 1968:81-2). To control entry to the lands, an area of 56 721 square kilometres was proclaimed as the North-West Aboriginal Reserve in 1921. As pastoral settlement in South Australia expanded, leases were granted for large holdings to the east of the Anangu lands. In 1933 an area of 800 square kilometres in the eastern end of the Musgrave Range was leased to Mr Stan Ferguson. The station was named Ernabella. Three blocks of the same size to the west and south of Ernabella were granted as water permits to other settlers in 1934. These were bounded on the western side by the reserve.

An Adelaide surgeon, Dr Charles Duguid, having heard reports from a patient of the abuse of Aboriginal people in remote areas, visited the Anangu region in 1935 to investigate the situation. As Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in South Australia and President of the Aborigines Protection League, he recommended that the church establish a medical mission to act as a buffer between the Pitjantjatjara people and the encroaching white settlement. Duguid (1972:115) later outlined the policy on which he had envisaged such a mission would be founded: 'There was to be no compulsion nor imposition of our way of life on the Aborigines, nor deliberate interference with tribal custom ... only people trained in some particular skill should be on the mission staff, and ... they must learn the tribal language.' He emphasised that 'Christian living should be exemplified by the white missionaries in their daily life ... it be left to the aborigines to make the change if they judged our way better than theirs' (Duguid n.d.:l). The change related to burial rituals is an example of the implementation of Duguid's policy.

Having purchased the Ernabella pastoral lease in 1936, the Presbyterian Church opened the mission in 1937. The sheep industry was maintained and became central to the economy and employment at the mission for more than three decades. Missionaries learned Pitjantjatjara and the school, which commenced in 1940, instituted a vernacular language program. Bible stories and hymns were translated and the children were well grounded in the knowledge of the stories and well trained to sing hymns in four-part harmony. Church services were held in the open air, and from 1944 in a brush shelter, but there was little pressure exerted to win converts and baptise. As the first school children became young adults and worked in the various mission enterprises, some showed increasing interest in the Christian story and sought further instruction. Following intensive teaching and learning, 20 young people were baptised in a newly constructed cement block church in November 1952. Some of the new church members had made and laid the blocks and mixed cement for the construction of the church building. Reflecting the participatory rather than spectator orientation of Anangu society, those baptised soon shared in the conduct of services through reading, praying, singing and preaching.

By 1958, 54 adults and 18 infants were baptised. The present writer commenced employment at Ernabella in May 1958 and in September was appointed superintendent. Following discussions with church members, at Easter 1961 they elected four church leaders, their first experience of a voting-style election.

Because of pressure on water and firewood supplies at Ernabella, in 1957 the Board of Missions presented to the South Australian Aborigines Protection Board a proposal to establish a series of outstations of Ernabella on the Aboriginal reserve. This would enable families to return to traditional sites. The South Australian Aborigines Protection Board rejected this proposal but decided to establish its own settlement on the reserve. Thus Amata government settlement was opened in 1961, 80 kilometres west of Ernabella. Comments by some government employees suggested that the South Australian Aborigines Protection Board viewed Ernabella's policies on language and respect for culture as hindering the process of assimilation. The Board of Missions responded by establishing Fregon as a cattle outstation, approximately 60 kilometres southwest of Ernabella, on a section of the reserve over which it had grazing rights. Some Ernabella families, having traditional ties to these areas, moved to these settlements.

During this period, the policies espoused by Duguid were followed. Anangu, while participating actively in the life of the church, continued their practice of traditional rituals, including initiations. Traditional burial practices described earlier were maintained, albeit with the use of shovels if available and increasing use of motor vehicles. Because of the limited availability of vehicles and lack of facilities to preserve bodies by freezing, burials took place soon after the death occurred and within a few kilometres of the settlement or other place of death. The conduct of these rituals was left to the Aboriginal people. On occasions, it was reported that Christian prayers were incorporated into the burial ritual. In this era, births and deaths were not reported officially but were recorded in books at the hospital. Police at Oodnadatta were notified if there were suspicious circumstances.

On 24 June 1963 Eric Apinya, aged approximately 35, who was baptised in 1952 and elected a church leader in 1961, died suddenly from a congenital heart condition. The people around the mission immediately fled to the camp and returned later to take his body out for the traditional burial. They established a camp on a new site and remained there, with the school and craft-room closed for a few days. On 26 June, I wrote to my parents as follows (Edwards 1963):

   I have also been discussing the holding of a
   Memorial Service with Tony and Alec [two
   of the other leaders] and will have this after
   lunch tomorrow. It will be a new innovation
   for these people as according to their
   traditions a dead person's name is not spoken
   again and they do not go where they might
   see his footprints--also burn his possessions.
   However today they have brought in
   Eric's tent, rifle, case and books to look after.
   I will respect their custom by not mentioning
   his name tomorrow but trust that the service
   will bring hope. Eric himself once wrote
   of the need for a Christian memorial service.

This initiative to have a service in the church to remember a significant church member was undertaken with respect for Anangu tradition but with a feeling that, following discussions with Anangu, they would appreciate such recognition of his Christian confession and active participation in church activities.

Until then, the Aboriginal people residing at Ernabella lived in spinifex shelters (wiltja) in a camp situation a short distance from the mission compound area. When a person died, the camp was relocated and the deceased person's shelter and belongings burned so that his or her spirit would not harm others. Housing had not been provided due to lack of funding and the mobility of the people. As there was a growing demand for more permanent dwellings, a small government grant enabled the erection in 1964 of four one-room cement block houses with verandahs on two sides and attached shower and toilet. Sited a short distance south of the compound area, this was an experimental step towards more adequate housing. Four families, whose men worked on the construction, occupied these houses. In 1968 a couple, Henry Tjamumalya and Watulya, and their three young children, who had moved to Amata in 1961, returned to Ernabella and were active in the church and work programs. They camped near the four houses. In June 1968 Watulya was flown to Alice Springs hospital. Three days later the hospital advised that she had died from suspected leukemia. In that era, the lack of cool rooms and other methods of preserving bodies created major problems for the return of deceased persons from Alice Springs and she was buried in the Alice Springs cemetery. News of her death led to an exodus from Ernabella to bush camps, Fregon and Amata, where family and others engaged in mourning practices. Three days later I visited Amata and later wrote as follows (Edwards 1968):

   We took the two sisters of the woman who
   had died and met her father and husband at
   a water hole 14 miles this side of Musgrave
   Park [Amata] where they were camped with
   a group of about 30 people. We went on to
   Musgrave Park for a short while and then
   returned to camp with the mourners. I had
   a short service with them on Wednesday
   morning and we returned home for lunch.

One consequence of this episode was the abandonment of the houses, which remained unoccupied. Such occurrences were for years an impediment to successful housing programs in remote Aboriginal communities.

A period of change

The decade following the 1967 referendum, which gave the Commonwealth power to provide finance for Aboriginal programs in the states, was a period of significant change in Indigenous affairs. The Presbyterian Board of Missions was to the fore in advocating a policy of transferring control of mission and government stations to local incorporated councils (Edwards 1973:72). In February 1972 I was transferred from Ernabella to Mowanjum Mission in Western Australia for one year to oversee the incorporation of a council and the transfer of administration from mission to community. By that time another 115 adults and 106 infants had been baptised at Ernabella, Amata, Fregon and Indulkana, the latter a government station established in 1968 approximately 145 kilometres east of Fregon. Under the oversight of Anangu church Elders, church membership continued to increase in these communities.

In September 1972 one Elder, Peter Nyaningu, aged approximately 39, visited Mowanjum to meet with Mowanjum Elders. On his way back to Ernabella he received the news that his young daughter had died. He returned home to participate in the traditional mourning and burial ceremonies. In 1970 he had taken over the running of the Ernabella bakery as a family business. According to tradition he and his family were expected to leave Ernabella for several months. It would mean the end of his successful business enterprise as his daughter had spent time in the bakery and her spirit would be present there. Following discussions, it was agreed that after a short period at a camp a few kilometres from Ernabella, the family could return and resume this occupation. In the meantime the internal walls of the bakery were painted. This was another small step towards an impending major change. This experience contributed to Peter Nyaningu's significant role in that innovation.

In March of the following year, 1973, the death of Polly Mayawara served as the catalyst for the introduction of church funeral services and the establishment of a cemetery. In the 1930s she had lived with a man of joint Irish and Yankunytjatjara descent, Barney Lennon, who was involved in the trading of dingo scalps. A son, Albert, was born to them. He grew up at Ernabella, where his mother worked as a cook and wool spinner. Albert worked as a stockman on nearby cattle stations and later became head stockman at Fregon. Albert and his mother were baptised and he became a church Elder. At the time of her death I was absent on leave after the year at Mowanjum. The Reverend Doug Belcher, a former Superintendent of Mornington Island Mission in the Gulf of Carpentaria, was employed at Ernabella as Superintendent but the oversight of the church was under local Elders. The events that followed this death were vividly described in a letter written by Jean Groome, wife of the school principal, Howard Groome, and sent to former staff members. I quote at length from this letter written on Sunday 4 March 1973 (Groome 1973):

   On Thursday Albert Lennon returned from
   some conference in Alice and his mother
   told him she 'ankuku' [will go.] He asked
   where was she going and she said her life
   was ending. That night he dreamed of her
   passing and on Friday morning she did die
   in the creek. Immediately the village was
   deserted of people and full of the echoing
   wailing. Albert was extremely distressed ...
   Manyiritjanu [Albert's wife] appealed to
   staff to pray for them. Mike [Michael Last,
   a horticultural staff member] said to several
   that he felt we need a real outpouring of God's
   power in the situation. The sister administered
   a sedative and felt Albert would simply
   sleep. Shortly the men asked Mike to come
   to the creek and he gathered Albert wanted to
   talk to the people--wailing still top volume.
   Soon many gathered round Albert who
   prayed with them, said all should not be sad
   and that he and his relatives would be going
   to the funeral. Then they decided on a small
   service in the church and everyone was told
   to go and prepare for that.

      So that was how about 5 hours after Polly's
   death the community gathered almost in its
   entirety many unable to enter the church and
   heard Peter preach and then Albert stood
   up and told them not to be sad, his mother
   had gone to be with the Lord, please don't
   observe the taboos about where she walked,
   etc. and come to the funeral. After that there
   was a long single file procession down from
   the church to the creek below our house ...
   where about 150 sat in silence for an hour
   or so till the grave was prepared in the new
   cemetery (site decided upon and it is the hills
   about 2 miles out) ... Eventually a long cortege
   of 15 vehicles or more set out for interment.
   Doug read the committal and Peter translated
   impromptu I think.

      Since then there has been no wailing and
   in many an attitude of joy. Yuminiya told
   Howard all about it as he has been at Amata
   that day. She said they were all frightened
   but now no more. The next surprise came
   today when the preacher was Albert. What a
   break with tradition to appear like that and
   again speak so forcibly on Christ who had
   gone ahead, on the fact of joy and not sorrow
   and the fact that Christ is the way, that the
   Holy Spirit spoke long ago and still today and
   (interestingly) a long section on the fact that
   it is the same spirit for white and black and
   we are in this together.

The writer of this letter added a pertinent comment: 'What none can know I suspect is the role of Peter as pastor in all of this and I am sure his own experience and partial break with traditional ways contributes.'

As indicated earlier, A nangu society was essentially conservative and past orientated due to the underlying belief that the Tjukurpa had provided the pattern for human behaviour. Any suggestions of change to accepted practices were viewed with suspicion. How then could two men in their thirties implement such a change in mourning and burial ceremonies? I suggest that they sensed that the changing residential, political and economic patterns of living at Ernabella made such a change necessary. As in Peter Nyaningu's case, the expectation that relatives of the deceased would leave their community for a lengthy period of time interfered with their employment and income. Ernabella had been settled for 35 years and the presence of scattered burial sites with their taboos in the lands surrounding the station created practical problems. On occasions, people driving between settlements could not take the shortest route or fence construction for the sheep work was interrupted because of the proximity of a grave site. As stated earlier, there was an association between the Tjukurpa and dreaming. It was reported that the deceased person appeared to an older woman in a dream, approving the change. This was a traditional validation of cultural change. The broad acceptance of Christian understandings about life and death provided a belief system undergirding the new practices. Traditional taboos were respected in that the deceased person's name was not used in the service. The idea that these two men, in consultation with others, had rightly sensed that it was time for change is confirmed by the fact that from then on Christian funeral services and burial in cemeteries became standard practice not only at Ernabella but at Amata, Fregon, Indulkana and the railway settlement of Finke, 300 kilometres to the east, where some Aboriginal residents were originally from Ernabella.

While there was no ordained person stationed as minister at Ernabella at the time, the Reverend Doug Belcher was there as Superintendent. Peter Nyaningu was able to call upon his assistance in planning and conducting the service. As in most aspects of life, the only models for new institutions were those of the wider Australian society, which they observed in the lives of the missionaries and as they visited Alice Springs and other urban centres. This has created problems in relation to housing, schools and other introduced institutions and practices, as entrenched values and obligations prove to be inimical to standard Western structures. The method of burial was changed in that coffins were used. Following the observed model, the coffin was covered with soil and flowers, often plastic, were laid on the grave. During the period of mourning when relatives and others lived in a 'sorry camp', a cement slab was laid over the grave and a small fence erected. A headstone was placed in position but was not inscribed with the name. A few weeks later, a service was held at the graveside to mark the end of the mourning period. This served as a functional substitute for what in the traditional practices was commonly referred to as 'the second burial'. The English term 'opening' is used to refer to this service. Cracks in the cement slab were viewed with approval as signs that the kurunpa had left the body on its journey to the spirit world. During the early years of this change, the display of images of deceased persons remained taboo.

Over the four decades since this change was instituted there have been gradual adaptations as these funeral services have become important features of contemporary Anangu life. Two significant events occurred after some years. Peter Nyaningu felt that as they now had a cemetery at Ernabella, it would be appropriate that the one whose vision had inspired the foundation of the mission, Dr Charles Duguid, should be buried there. Duguid was contacted and, honoured by the request, he replied that he would arrange that following his death his body would be cremated and the ashes sent to Ernabella for burial. The response from Ernabella was immediate: we don't want your ashes, but tarka winki, complete with bones. Duguid then arranged that his body, accompanied by family members, would be flown to Ernabella for burial. This was accomplished in 1986 when he died, aged 102. The ashes of his wife, Phyllis Duguid, were buried there in 1993. Their presence contributed to growing confidence that the cemetery was a safe place, and the installation of plates bearing the names and other details encouraged the practice of recording the names of deceased persons and, eventually, of their images. For example, photographs of the deceased person were included in printed materials distributed at funeral services.

The other event took place once the change was well established and people remembered the church leader, Eric Apinya, who, following his death in 1963, had been buried in traditional fashion. In 1976 they arranged for the making of a brass plaque bearing his name and at a special service placed it above the main door of the Ernabella church.

One consequence of increased Commonwealth financing of Aboriginal projects and the policy of incorporating communities was the return of some Ernabella and Amata residents to their traditional lands to the west and the establishment of several small homeland communities. As the population increased, this also relieved pressure on water and firewood supplies at the larger settlements. Following my year at Mowanjum, I was based at Fregon in 1973 but absent again in 1974-75, studying in Fill and Adelaide. I returned to the area in 1976 as Parish Minister based at Amata to provide support for the Elders who were carrying out most of the roles of ministry in several churches throughout the 600 kilometre-wide parish. I remained in this role until 1980. In 1977 the Pitjantjatjara church became part of the newly established Uniting Church in Australia. In 1978 Peter Nyaningu commenced theological studies through Nungalinya College in Darwin and was ordained at Ernabella in 1983. By the end of 1980, 500 adults had been baptised since the first baptisms in 1952 and 28 Elders had been ordained. The Anangu population in the area was approximately 1600.

While, as outlined earlier, the change in mourning and burial practices spread across the region, there was some resistance in new homeland communities which opened near the Western Australian border in the mid-1970s. Some of the community advisers employed there reflected the social revolution of the 1960-70s. Critical of previous church and government policies, they tended to favour the persistence of traditional practices. However, following the fatal spearing of a young man in Kalgoorlie, I received a radio message on 3 March 1980 requesting that I conduct his funeral at his community the following day. The next morning I drove 240 kilometres from Amata in the Toyota, taking four people with me. Following discussions on my arrival during which relatives clearly expressed their desire for a Christian service and the opening of a cemetery, a large crowd attended the service that afternoon. Camping nearby, the following morning I conducted a service and talked with Anangu and staff before returning to Amata. The cemetery was from then on used for burials at the community. This incident raises the question as to the extent to which, in Indigenous societies, resistance to change, as well as innovations, may be influenced by white advisers.

Later developments

By the turn of the century funeral services and accompanying events had become significant occasions at Anangu communities as some of the previous taboos were relaxed and people became accustomed to using the names of deceased people and looking at images of them. As power supplies increased, cool rooms and special mortuaries attached to clinics enabled the preservation of bodies for longer periods so that relatives and others could travel longer distances to attend burial ceremonies. Thus the number of people present at funerals increased dramatically. The practice of having a 'sorry camp', where family and other close associates spent much of their time during the period of mourning between the death and the 'opening' service in the cemetery, was maintained. An innovation from the 1990s was the holding of 'memory' services, usually on the eve of the actual funeral service, at which choirs sang and members of the community and non-Anangu staff who had worked with the deceased would deliver eulogies. For example, following the death of one of the four original church leaders, Alec Minutjukurnga, on 16 June 2000, a memorial service was held at an outdoor platform on the evening of 22 June. He had been Director of the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara Education Committee from 1994 to 1998. At this service, school representatives presented tributes and the Ernabella Choir sang two hymns. The following day the funeral service was held in the church, which 'was crowded with many outside' (Edwards 2000). The burial took place at a small homeland cemetery near the Ernabella airstrip, eight kilometres from the community.

On 13 May the following year, another of the church leaders elected in 1961, Tony Tjamiwa, died at Ernabella. His father's country near Amata had a link with the mala (hare-wallaby) story from Uluru. After the Uluru/Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock/Mount Olga) land was transferred to Anangu ownership in 1985, people at Uluru, having observed his role as a church Elder at Ernabella, asked Tony Tjamiwa to assist them and provide leadership. This he did for several years as chairman of Mutitjulu Community, Liaison Officer with National Parks and Lay Pastor of the Mutitjulu church. Following his unexpected death at Ernabella, the several hundred people who gathered on 22 May in the church and surrounds to celebrate his life and contribution included park rangers from Darwin and Adelaide and a government minister from Canberra. They spoke of the wisdom he shared with them, while Anangu recalled his care of family and community. The service concluded with the choir singing the Pitjantjatjara version of Hail, Gladdening Light (Edwards 2001a:70). Tony Tjamiwa's death received widespread publicity in Australia, and some internationally, due to the closure of the climb at Uluru as a mark of respect.

On 12 April 2002 Tjikalyi Colin died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital after a long illness at the age of 59. She had attended the Ernabella school and become a teaching assistant and artist. In her later years she was a leader in the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council, which was established in 1991 to promote the interest of Anangu women and their families. People met in the 'sorry' camp until her body was transported back to Ernabella, where the 'memory' service was held outdoors on the evening of 23 April. The choir, of which she had been a member for many years, sang. The following day the church was again packed, with many people gathered outside. The letter reporting on the first burial in the cemetery at Ernabella referred to the 'long cortege of 15 vehicles or more'. On this occasion, as people had gathered from many distant communities, there were more than 100 vehicles in the cortege from church to cemetery (Edwards 2002).

Nganyinytja Ilyatjari OAM was a remarkable Pitjantjatjara woman during these decades of increasing interaction with the wider Australian community. One of the first school children and teacher aides, she was baptised in 1952. When Musgrave Park (later Amata) government settlement opened in 1961 she, her husband Charlie and their children moved there to be nearer her father's country. They were Elders in the Amata church. Her vision contributed to the formation of the NPY Women's Council. Her husband predeceased her in 2001 and she spent her final years in a nursing home in Alice Springs, where she died on 7 April 2007, aged approximately 79 years (Edwards 2007:88). At the 'memory' service held at Amata on the evening of 17 April, several speakers paid tribute to her many contributions to Anangu cultural life and her role in reconciliation. Singing groups performed and faxes were read out. This practice had grown in recent years as there was an expectation from family members that former staff and others who could not attend the ceremonies would send a message. The funeral service on the following day was attended by approximately 500 people and was held at an outside platform near the church. The interment took place at a small family cemetery near the area where she lived in one of the first houses built for Anangu at Amata. Another feature of this funeral was the distribution of a sheet bearing her name, the inscription 'with Love and Respect from the Ara Irititja Project Team' and 15 photographs taken during her life. This use of her name and images soon after her death during the burial ceremonies was in sharp contrast to an occasion in the mid-1960s when I was showing coloured slides at a meeting at Ernabella. I inadvertently included an image of a youth who had died some time previously. This led to wailing and the departure of family members from the building.

The preparation of these tribute sheets was another developing practice, aided by the resources associated with the Pitjantjatjara Council's Ara Irititja Project Team, an archival project based in Adelaide since 1994. It has digitally stored a large collection of photographs, films, sound recordings, artworks and documents, which Anangu can access online through computers based in their communities. Software enables restrictions to be placed on the viewing of images, for example by men only or women only, or when families request that they be temporarily withdrawn from view following a death. Ara Irititja prepared the panels now on permanent display in the Ernabella church. While the changes to mourning practices outlined in this paper enabled a gradual modification of taboos associated with death and the acceptance of the use of names and images of deceased persons, the rapidly increasing accessibility of such images through the archive accelerated their use. Another growing practice in recent years has been that when former staff members visit communities, relatives of people who once worked with them escort them to the cemetery to show them the graves of their former Anangu colleagues.

The holding of these large burial gatherings is not without problems. On occasions there are disputes within or between families as to where the ceremonies and interment should take place. The frequency of such events at several communities over a large area often disrupts employment and educational programs. In recent years Australian newspapers have frequently highlighted the poor rates of school attendance in remote Aboriginal schools (e.g. Nankervis 2011). In discussion with the Superintendent of Anangu Education Services in the South Australian Department of Education and Children's Services in June 2011, he identified football and funerals as two of the major events contributing to non-attendance at schools. Both involve extensive travel and long periods away from home communities.


The above examples of recent burials have been included to illustrate the contrast between them and Anangu traditional mourning and burial practices, to indicate the adaptation of some of the old values and practices in the new, and to identify some of the features which have developed in the new way, such as headstones, choirs and faxes. The mourning and burial practices of the Anangu which had developed over the several millennia of their unrecorded history reflected their hunting and gathering mode of living and their worldview as expressed in the Tjukurpa, with its associated stories and rituals and deeply entrenched values. The mission policy of minimal interference with traditional customs enabled the continuity of these practices for the first 35 years of culture contact at Ernabella.

However, by this time some of the taboos and customs did not fit comfortably with many aspects of the lives they were living as occupants of houses in relatively settled communities, as workers in a variety of industries, as recipients of government welfare benefits, holding positions on community councils and other bodies, and as school students. As indicated earlier, scattered burial sites interfered with travel and work projects. Whereas brush shelters could be dismantled and burned and new ones erected in a new camp site, housing could not be dealt with in this way. One adaptation following a death was to vacate the house for a short period, have the internal walls repainted and another family then occupy the dwelling. While a deceased person's spear or digging dish could be destroyed without much thought about its value or difficulty of replacing it, now that one's possessions may include a motor vehicle or television set there is cause to reconsider traditional practices.

As people became more dependent on wages and stores for sustenance, long separation from their workplace was problematic and it was accepted that after a brief absence they could return to work. During the 1960s the requirements of government bodies for a person to be registered with a personal name and a surname for the receipt of child endowment and other welfare benefits led to the use of the father's name as a surname or taking an English name for this purpose, this name being shared by members of the family. If one person bearing the name died, it was difficult to observe the taboo by having the name removed from such records. As Anangu assumed responsible positions on community, school and health councils, their long absences due to traditional mourning practices interfered with the emerging political and administrative structures in the region.

Thus, Peter Nyaningu and Albert Lennon, encouraged by their understanding of the Christian story, responded to this situation, which necessitated innovation by taking the initiative of holding a church funeral service and establishing a cemetery at Ernabella. That the situation was ripe for such change is indicated by the immediate spread of this practice throughout most of the Anangu region. Further confirmation was provided through dreams.

This description of the changes in Anangu mourning and burial practices fits the model of innovation outlined by Rogers and referred to in the introduction to this paper. At a time when traditional practices created problems in the contemporary situation, Peter Nyaningu, reflecting on his own experience and perceiving a need for innovation, communicated this to Albert Lennon and the new practices were soon adopted by Anangu across their lands and further adapted over time. The delay in writing this paper has enabled the recording of the way in which the changes have been well established in Anangu society and elaborated over a period of almost four decades. Also, had I written it earlier, I would not have felt the same freedom to refer to specific funeral services and to include the names of deceased Anangu persons.


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Bill Edwards

University of South Australia

WH (Bill) Edwards, ordained as a Minister of the Presbyterian Church in 1958, was Superintendent of Ernabella Mission (1958-72), Superintendent of Mowanjum Mission (1972-73), and Minister of the Pitjantjatjara Parish based at Fregon (1973) and at Amata (1976-80). He lectured in Aboriginal Studies at the Torrens College of Advanced Education (1975) and from 1981 at the South Australian College of Advanced Education, which in 1991 was incorporated into the newly established University of South Australia (1981-1996). In retirement he remains an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the university, where until 2004 he conducted Summer Schools in Pitjantjatjara language, and interprets in Pitjantjatjara in hospitals and courts. In 2008 he was awarded a PhD in history at Hinders University for a thesis, Moravian Aboriginal Missions in Australia. He was awarded membership of the Order of Australia in 2009.
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Author:Edwards, Bill
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
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Date:Mar 22, 2013
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